SDOT explains last week’s transportation fiascos

This afternoon, representatives from SDOT briefed the Council on issues related to last week’s big transportation breakdowns: the overturned propane truck on I-5 on Monday, and the First Hill streetcar that failed on Wednesday.

Mark Bandy, SDOT’s Director of Transportation Operations, briefed the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on the two events.

First, the streetcar. Bandy explained that the First Hill streetcar was travelling south on Broadway at about 20 miles per hour when it experienced an electromechanical malfunction and lost power. Its parking brake automatically engaged, but skidded down the hill before eventually coming to a stop in the Yesler intersection. The only two passengers on board were taken off the streetcar uninjured at Yesler, and the vehicle was towed back to the maintenance facility.

They believe the malfunction was an isolated incident, but are continuing to investigate it in cooperation with the manufacturer. Exercising an abundance of caution, they have taken the other First Hill streetcars, plus one South Lake Union streetcar — all made in the same batch — until the problem is understood and fixed. That has taken the First Hill streetcar line entirely offline, and SDOT is running buses in its place during the AM and PM peak times.

SDOT has no timetable yet for fixing the streetcar and re-establishing service.

Council member Johnson peppered Bandy with questions. He was clearly concerned about the fact that the streetcar skidded down the hill, and asked whether drivers were being retrained with regard to the braking mechanism. Bandy replied that SDOT was looking at a number of options for more effectively braking the streetcars when the have lost power.

Johnson also asked about the extent of the manufacturer’s liability: whether they are on the hook to fix the streetcars under warranty, and the extent to which they should be required to reimburse the city for the bus service and for loss of service the rest of the day. Bandy noted that the streetcars are still under warranty, and the manufacturer is being very cooperative in investigating the electromechanical issue; but he declined to comment today on additional cost recovery from the manufacturer.

Council member O’Brien, the committee chair, asked SDOT to provide a follow-up report at the next committee meeting in two weeks.

As most Seattle residents know, last Monday a propane tanker truck overturned on I-5 at the I-90 interchange. It took nearly eight hours to clear it and re-open the highway, and because of the danger from the propane the closures extended to both directions of I-5 between I-90 and the West Seattle Bridge, and I-90 to the stadiums.

Last April, a fish truck overturned on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, causing a similar snafu. In the aftermath of that incident and criticisms of the SDOT/WSDOT response, SDOT commissioned a consultant to provide recommendations on how the department could respond better in the future. Last week’s incident was the first big test.

Certainly no one was happy that it took so long to clear it and reopen the highway. In SDOT’s defense, WSDOT was the primary responder (with SDOT in support), and a propane truck is a very different — and much more dangerous — issue than a load of crab. Nevertheless, the Seattle Times took issue with SDOT, and in particular claimed that they had not followed through on a top recommendation: creating a central, cross-department manual for incident response.

This afternoon, Bandy described the site of the incident as “probably the busiest interchange in an 800-mile radius,” and acknowledged that it had broad impact and caused a lot of frustration. He then listed several actions that SDOT took to address the situation: they asked SPD and King County Metro representatives to join them at SDOT’s transportation operations center; they changed traffic signal timing; and they called in additional SDOT incident response crews to keep other streets open as traffic moved from the highway onto surface streets. Also, since I-90 wasn’t available for east-west bus service the department set up a temporary bus lane along Dearborn Avenue.

O’Brien then brought up the issue of the “missing manual.” Bandy replied that the consultant’s report had over 90 recommendations, and the department has been working through them. On the manual, he said that they had gathered together the policies and procedures into a set of chapters for a manual and they have been training their staff, but until recently they had not actually bound them together into a single manual. Now they have an initial draft, and their schedule for this year includes finalizing and distributing the manual. He assured the Council, however, that the lack of a bound manual did not impact the city’s response to last week’s incident. O’Brien and Johnson seemed to accept that explanation, though O’Brien still wanted SDOT to report back to his committee with a post-incident report listing lessons learned and changes made as a result.

Johnson had his own critique of last week’s response, noting that the spillover of vehicles from the highway onto arterial surface streets caused its own set of problems, including the blocking of bus lanes in several places, that just exacerbated issues. Johnson asked whether that experience changes the way that SDOT thinks about the One Center City plan. SDOT responded that they recognize the importance of enforcement of transit and bike lanes, and they would like to have more enforcement tools available to deploy  to that end.

In short: the Seattle Times’ critique seems somewhat overblown, but SDOT admits it still has work to do on its incident response and in managing traffic downtown during unusual events.

SDOT had a no good, very bad week, and is still dealing with the aftermath as the First Hill streetcar remains out of service and it continues to make changes to its major incident response. But there’s no overt signs of incompetence in last week’s events; sometimes shit happens worse than you imagined  (like an electromechanical failure on a nearly new streetcar when it’s heading downhill, and a propane tanker overturning in the worst possible spot). In those cases, you rely on everyone knowing their job, make some things up as you go along based on accumulated experience, and learn for next time from what went well and poorly.

And O’Brien and Johnson did their job today too: they pushed SDOT to show that they are learning from the past, making improvements, and watching out for the safety of Seattle residents.